Computer scientist and general director of CTIC Dakar, Regina Mbodj explains in this interview the reasons for the creation and the results of this incubator of startups and SMB in ICT. Today, this project created in 2011 aims to position Senegal on the global digital map and to go with the companies it supports, the onslaught of emerging markets. With over a hundred entrepreneurs, start-ups and SMB in ICT supported, 300 skilled jobs created and more than 4 billion FCFA of cumulated turnover, the incubator CTIC draws the paths of a true digital economy.
Can you come back to the reasons for the creation of the incubator CTIC Dakar?
Ctic Dakar was created with funds from the World Bank. There was a feasibility study by the ICT Incubator Foundation in Senegal (Fictis), whose mission is to provide support for ICT incubators in all university regions of Senegal. After the study that turned out to be positive, the World Bank wanted to support the setting up of this incubator. Then, Infodev participated in all that is technical assistance. It must be remembered that this feasibility study revealed that Senegal had assets to use this tool, in order to support young people in creating jobs, developing their businesses, their solutions and products. We have assets in terms of infrastructure compared to other countries in the sub-region. This is also the case for mobile penetration and the Internet. In addition, there are many colleges that train very good computer engineers. It is according to all these parameters that CTIC Dakar was created. Initially, it was considered a pilot project that was planned to be duplicated, if it worked, in other regions of Senegal.
What have been your main satisfactions so far?
Since starting in 2011, we have supported more than a hundred entrepreneurs, startups and SMBs in technologies. We have coached more than 3 000 students in schools and universities in Dakar and in the regions. CTIC Dakar has created more than 300 skilled jobs through its entrepreneurs. Also, hundreds of solutions have been developed within the network and several dozen events organized in our ecosystem. We are proud to say that we helped structuring and identifying different stakeholders in our ecosystem, ensuring that everyone plays his part. Financially, we managed to raise several millions FCFA for our companies, with more than 4 billion FCFA cumulative turnover. We are pleased to say that we have contributed to the creation of jobs, businesses, solutions, wealth and the training of thousands of aspiring young entrepreneurs.
So the objectives, which were set at the beginning, were achieved?
The goals were simply exceeded, because at first they were very limited. This, because we did not have many means. It should be noted that CTIC Dakar is not subsidized by the government. In this case, it is very difficult for the state to give objectives to a device that it does not support. However, as soon as this tool was put in place, we had objectives for job creation, solutions and businesses. Today we have managed to exceed these goals. We did a lot more than we were supposed to do. At one point, we were very tight in our offices. There were too many companies, young people, who came here to work. By having no space to put them, we made a plea to the State to have other buildings. That’s how they made another building available through the Built Heritage Branch. Subsequently, we raised funds to renovate, equip and install our businesses.
And what are the structures that support CTIC Dakar, since its creation in 2011?
At the local level, there is the State Computer Agency (ADIE) that pays our electricity and water bills, and put us on the government Intranet. In a moment, there was the Regulatory Authority of Telecommunications and Posts (ARTP), which is also a founding member of CTIC Dakar. We had an accompaniment of the ARTP during the first three years before it stopped. Today, we no longer have ARTP as a contributor. The Agency for Development and Supervision of Small and Medium Enterprises (ADEPME) also supports us with a lot of technical assistance as well as in the programs we run. There is also Sonatel, who is a founding member and accompanies all our major events. At one point, he had made available to us an ADSL line for connectivity and contributed a lot to the renovation of some of our premises. Internationally, there was the Brussels Business Development Center, which supported us for two years for all technical assistance. France Telecom also accompanied us in a moment as well as the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF) through an envelope of 100 000 euros (more 65 million FCFA) for the renovation of the premises and the exploitation of CTIC Dakar. However, the World Bank continues to be a privileged partner through the programs it entrusts to us and for which we are remunerated.
Is access to financing a problem to incubate and support startups?
For the most part, there is no financial backing available for entrepreneurs and even less for ICT entrepreneurs. When we do not have equipment as guarantee, financial people don’t understand the development of software, web or mobile applications. They can’t put guarantees on it. We arrive at times when the company is completely blocked by lack of funding. It even happens with small amounts. And it’s very difficult to get them. We have signed a partnership with the National Economic Development Bank (BNDE) in this direction. It is a support agreement for entrepreneurs and companies of CTIC Dakar.
We also have another tripartite agreement with Cofides Nord-Sud, which is based in France and guarantees 50% of loans at the level of the BNDE. It is a mechanism that is beginning to prove itself, but it is far from exhaustive. We need to have a lot more. Today, all that we have as a support device is not addressed to our startups and our entrepreneurs.
Have you noticed a satisfaction with startups that have been incubated so far?
We have several. For example, a company like People Input, which has gone through CTIC Dakar, is today the leader of the place and is present in many African countries. This is also the case of “ByFeeling” who arrived at CTIC with two people for a turnover of less than 10 million FCFA. Currently, the structure employs 15 people with a turnover of more than 100 million FCFA, which represents a pride for us. It’s the same for Nelam Services as well as other companies that have made solutions around the world …
Will the action of the CTIC be extended to the other regions of Senegal?
We have more or less an operating budget which is between 200 and 300 million FCFA. We don’t have enougg money to support it. We generate our own income to ensure sustainability. We cannot afford to fund that kind of thing because it’s not our role to do it. I think it is up to the state to promote youth entrepreneurship a little and to support incubators.
And compared to the experience of other incubators from African countries such as Tunisia or Morocco, does Senegal hold the course?
We do not stay the course. We have to tell things as they are. I am well aware of what is going on in those countries. We are very far behind for several reasons. The first is related to the contribution of the state. For them, there is a real support of the state vis-à-vis these incubators. In Morocco, the King has a national strategy for digital democratization and support for SMBs. So they have a lot of tools at their disposal. They have funds for innovation for research and development, franchised areas and facilities for investors. Frankly, we are very far from what they are doing. In Senegal, we have the raw material, which is the expertise. We have young people, entrepreneurs and startups. But we have no funds. You take a SMB that makes 90 million to 110 million FCFA per month. This SMB needs a favorable environment, in order to be competitive, innovative, because innovation is expensive. You have to do research and development. Developing solutions takes certain requirements that our SMBs cannot always access. Everything is not rosy in this environment.
In Rwanda today, access to the Internet is almost free. Young people can, for example, go to the Independence Square and work. Here, Internet access is too expensive. Same for telephony and infrastructure. Market access is not easy either. What is the relevance of creating an incubator if companies that are incubated do not have access to public market? However, everything that is done in Senegal today can be done by startups. Entrepreneurs are very well trained here and elsewhere. There are also good schools in Senegal. They are equipped to carry out all kinds of solutions activities. Nevertheless, when we talk about public market, we are absent. We have no visibility in this public market. It is regrettable. We are not in the same models. When you take the Maghreb, the state has a real strategy for the inclusion of startups and SMBs. The state designs specific projects for them. We prefer them. And it’s well segmented. Is considered as a startup, for example, a company from this many employees and turnover. It is the same for SMBs. But in Senegal, we do not know who is a startup or a SMB. We do not have this segmentation. There is a lack of support tools. And yet, there are many things that are done. We have agencies like Anpej, other youth employment agencies. The General Delegate for Rapid Entrepreneurship has recently been created with colossal funds of 30 billion FCFA, it seems. There are tools that are there but everything is disparate. We cannot capitalize on that. We do not know who does what. We do not evaluate. I feel that we are a little left behind.
But, nevertheless in Senegal, the expertise is there …
Yes, the expertise is there. I remind you that in the World Bank network, that is, the incubators it supports, CTIC enjoys a good reputation. The World Bank says that CTIC Dakar is the only incubator that has become sustainable, which has adopted the economic model that allows it to exist without subsidies. As of today, we are financially independent without subsidies. With this in mind, we have set up other incubators in other countries. The economic model we had at the time did not correspond to our realities. We have redesigned it, reworked it to adapt it to our realities, to our experience. We set up the incubator of Niger. We have done the feasibility studies for Mauritania, Gabon, and Togo. We will soon do the same thing in Equatorial Guinea. People know CTIC Dakar around the world. We received several ministerial delegations from other countries to come and take inspiration from our model.
Compared to the “Digital Senegal 2025” strategy, what was CTIC’s contribution? And what are your expectations?
We have all contributed to this strategy. It has been inclusive. It is expected that CTIC Dakar will have a central place in the Diamniadio Digital Technology Park. There is a space dedicated to incubation for project support. I hope this will take shape. We will try to intervene at different levels. We are in digital entrepreneurship. It’s a chain that goes from awareness to training, from pre-incubation to coaching ideas. We try to turn these ideas into projects and these into companies.